River Talk

April 2011 Archives

Up here near the head of the watershed for the Mississippi, we've been focused for a month on our snowmelt-induced flooding.

But all that water has to go somewhere, i.e. downstream, and when that extra volume is combined with the recurring rains that the midsection of the country has suffered recently, there's a different kind of disaster in the making.

There's a news story out today about conflict between the Corps of Engineers and the State of Missouri concerning the best approach to relieving strained levees that may give way at any point.  This is not a new conflict; John Barry's account of the 1927 delta flood Rising Tide plays up just such a confrontation around New Orleans.

But there maybe needs to be a new point in the policy debate:  What are the right processes to decide on the appropriate course of action when floods come?  We really ought not be surprised any more, should we?  And by now we know that flood preparation ought to be more than just a matter of sandbags and bigger walls.

Sometimes things turn out better than expected.  Last Saturday, I was, frankly, not looking forward to engaging in a clean up service activity with our River Ranger program.  It had been a long week, the weather was cold and windy, more like early March than mid-April, and I had a lot to do at home to prepare for this week's classes.

But the energy of 15 young people, combined with visible results, makes all the difference!

The project was to clean organic materials, leaves, grass clippings, etc. out of gutters along one of the streets that leads from campus to the river.  As the Freshwater Society explains in its "Community Clean-Up" Program, five bags of leaves and organic debris can contain as much as a pound of phosphorus, a nutrient that can feed 1,000 pounds of algae.  The algae, besides leading directly to eutrophication of local waterways,  contribute to the Gulf of Mexico's "Dead Zone."

So we cleaned leaves and debris, as the accompanying photos show.  How much is a little uncertain, since we also picked up inorganic trash and recyclable materials, but we got 35 bags altogether.

Who is this "we" that I speak of?  River Rangers  is a program jointly managed by the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and the University's River Life Partnership.  Substantial volunteer "muscle" for Saturday's work came from the U of MN chapter of Habitat for Humanity and a group of interns in town working with the Mississippi River Fund in training for the River Citizen's Program of the Mississippi R
iver Network.

Added bonus:  a number of the students signed up as "River Citizens," committed to engage elected officials on issues concerning the river and water quality.

It would be poetic to say that the clouds parted and it got all warm and sunny as we did all this great work.  But this is Minnesota in April, so we had no such luck.  It was still cold and windy when we finished.  We felt better though!

And we know how to mobilize something like this now, so send us a note if you'd like to start something like this on your own neighborhood streets!

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune ran a front page story in Sunday's paper with the headline "Strangling Our Rivers."  But, I think wisely, the paper did not draw a clear conclusion on who is doing the strangling.

Instead, in the kind of thoughtful journalism that is all too rare these days, Josephine Marcotty points out that some of the sediment coming into Lake Pepin from the Minnesota River is the result of "natural" stream bank erosion while some is the result of runoff from farm fields.  The history of the land now called Minnesota--from the post-glacial epoch up until the present day--is the primary "cause" of this problem.

If you haven't made up your mind about the causes of sediment runoff into the streams and rivers of the Midwest, this article is a good place to start.  In a couple of weeks, when our semester is over and one of my Honors undergraduates has completed a semester research project, I'll try to share with you some more good sources.

In the meantime, I welcome additional sources of credible water quality information.  Send them along, or post a comment!
Many thanks to the readers who caught the broken link and told me what the problem was (so that even a 20th century guy like me could fix it!)

The post from Thursday has been fixed, I believe, but drop me a comment if it's still broken.

Last month, I attended the Majora Carter talk "You Don't Have to Move Out of Your Neighborhood to Live in a Better One," held at the U of Minn.  It was quite possibly the best event I've seen at the University in a decade or more of working here.

We all know "That Guy" who sends an email to his entire address book saying "You just have to see this fabulous thing!!" which often, maybe, isn't that fabulous.  Well, as I walked back across the campus from the talk, I seriously considered being That Guy and telling everyone with whom I have ever been in touch to watch the video when it comes out.

The video of the talk is now out, and is connected to a lot of other important material about Majora Carter's work.  Do yourself a favor and spend an hour with this stuff.  Tell me it doesn't change the way you think about the river work you do, the community building that we all need to do, and the commitment we all make to the world that we have borrowed from our children and grandchildren.

Major kudos to the Institute on the Environment and its communications team.  Someone told me that people at the University had been talking and working to get Majora Carter on campus for over three years.  IonE folks finally got it done.

And, as you'll see when you watch the show (and you all will, right?  It's going to be on the final.)  the transformation of the Bronx began with a transformation of the Bronx River.

Thursday's Minneapolis Star Tribune carried an article about new plans for apartment developments at the National Historic Landmark Pillsbury A Mill, on the east side of the river in the Central Riverfront District.

This is bittersweet news in my opinion.  Certainly redevelopment of the structure into apartments at varying price points is good news.

But it's a real shame that Schafer-Richardson Inc., which had worked for years to develop the property, won't be leading the way.

Kit Richardson has always been my example of "not all developers are like that" when colleagues start venting with the standard view of developers as short-term thinkers, motivated only by short-term profits.  Richardson's project, East Bank Mills, was underway for about seven years, and could serve as a great case study of community engagement, collaboration with multiple agencies, and historic preservation interests, and a visionary sense of how a project could utilize the existing water power running through the mill building's basement as a source of heating and cooling for millions of square feet of developed space.

East Banks Mills would have been community development in the best sense of the word, I believe, and I hope Richardson and his team will have a voice in the property's future.

Week in Review: Floods

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It's been a big week for flooding and flood coverage in the Upper Midwest.  Here's a quick recap and prognosis.

Followers of the blog will remember that a week ago we rolled out our multi-platform "Flood Forum" as an effort to serve as a gathering place for good flood-related information and diverse voices.  The University sent out a press release on our work and a number of local media outlets picked up the story.  We appreciate the coverage and assistance in spreading the word!  

Our main web page has been updated twice with the addition of some really stellar data sources and community voices.  Our Facebook and Twitter pages have had very active weeks; check them out, follow us on Twitter, and "like" the Facebok page to pick up on stunning video and aerial photo sets of the flooding.

Our student contributors have been great:  reading hard to find materials and posting thought-provoking questions about what they've found.  We have 13 participating now and fully expect that number to grow substantially.

As for the floods themselves, St. Paul weathered the first crest on Wednesday and communities downstream are still preparing for that wave.  Cold weather has helped keep flood crests relatively low, but is likely to extend the season for some weeks yet.  And the Red River, which flows north out of the western Minnesota prairies, hasn't really begun to thaw yet.  Heavy snowpack across that part of the region means that waters in Fargo and Grand Forks are likely to be quite high.  Predictions for rain in the Twin Cities early in the week won't help matters on the Mississippi, either.

We're off to a strong start, but there's more to do!  Just covering events (and keeping up with students!) is a full time job.  We intend to keep revising and updating the web site, particularly with flood-related news from outside the region, and will try to spend some time responding to some of the more technical inquiries that have come our way.
Stay tuned.  And be sure to let us know how we can provide good information for you.  We appreciate comments and questions!

  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.